Nobody needs a generalist
Growing up, one of my greatest fears was forgetting something I learned in class. Everybody worries of misplacing an important formula on an exam, but my fear ran deeper. I worried that my recollection might fail me twenty, thirty, sixty years later.
My memory was like a net for facts. Every day at school, I would try to catch more facts. At some point around middle school I realized that my net was full, and that every time I opened it to add more facts, some would escape. This was a problem. I needed all the facts.
In my young mind, success in school indicated intelligence which predicated success in life. If my net was already full, I was screwed.
I tried a lot of things to increase the size of my net. I practiced memory techniques, spent more time reading, reread old materials, agonized over productivity techniques, listened to music that supposedly made me smarter, and tried to will myself smarter. I think this desire was one reason I studied neuroscience. Maybe I thought I would discover something that would fix my leaky and insubstantial net.
My anxiety was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more I spread myself across subjects, frantically trying to keep all the concepts in my net, the more I felt like I was losing my grip; the more I felt like I had not mastered anything.
This obsession lasted through college and into my first few years of work. Even at my first job, I tried to get involved with every industry and function I possibly could, afraid that focusing on one thing would limit my learning and prematurely shrink my net.
I had inadvertently become the stereotypical consultant: knows of many things, knows nothing.
My desperate attempts to hoard the contents of my net came from an attitude that one day in the indeterminate future I would do something and on that day, I wanted to be prepared. This is the wrong attitude for two reasons:
1) We can’t predict the future, so we can’t predict which facts and skills will be the most needed in a future ten, twenty, fifty years from now 2) No matter the future, we will value someone with depth of knowledge more than someone with breadth of knowledge
The best way to know how to do things is to do them. When we try to spread ourselves across everything, we grow aware of many concepts, but have limited capabilities, and no mastery of any of the concepts.
So the question arises, how do you avoid doing everything and accomplishing nothing?
Instead of focusing on skill acquisition, focus on completing projects that you care about. These projects are the best predictors of what you want to accomplish in the future. As you work towards completing your project, you inadvertently acquire skills--a nice side effect. And if you find a project you really love, it can start a chain of work that will eventually lead to mastery.
Mastery comes from sustained, deliberate practice. When Jerry Seinfeld was interviewed about productivity, he said to hang a big wall calendar with a whole year on it on a prominent wall, pick a primary task, and every day the task gets completed, put a big red X over it. He says, “after a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain. Don’t break the chain.”
Empty the net, release the information and skills you don’t need, and carefully collect the ones that matter for the type of work you like. Then focus on completing projects every day. If we stop caring about skills that don’t matter to us and focus on completing projects that interest us, we slowly develop capabilities and mastery.